Stephen Arnell

Ten films set in Russia

Ten films set in Russia
The Way Back (Kobal/Shutterstock)
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With Russia back in the news yet again, it’s interesting to note how comparatively few English language movies set in the country there actually are.

Admittedly in TV there’s been an uptick, with two recent series on Catherine The Great in youth/middle age, the Andrew Davies Pass Notes version of War & Peace, McMafia and the multi award-winning Chernobyl.

But in terms of film, there are a handful of classics and older movies such as Dr Zhivago (1965), War & Peace (umpteen adaptations) the musical Fiddler On The Roof (1971), and two comedies – Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs (1970) and of course Woody Allen’s Love & Death (1975), but the subject matter for many others is often confined to WWII, the Cold War and other (surprise surprise) spy-related themes.

Don’t get me started on submarine actioners with a Russian angle; movies such as The Hunt for Red October (1990), Crimson Tide (1995) and no less than three more recent titles (K19: The Widowmaker, Kursk and Hunter Killer) that all tend to follow the familiar undersea tropes. Dodgy Russian accents, leaking radiation, friction between the captain and XO, rogue generals (see also Air Force One), oxygen loss, duels with other subs and surface vessels etc…

Here are a few more movies set in Russia, beginning with a picture I watched again after a long absence, which still stands up surprisingly well.

Gorky Park (1983, MGM)

A policier set in Moscow, the movie follows the investigations of Detective Arkady Renko (William Hurt) into the murder and mutilation of three students found in the Moscow park of the picture’s title.

Based on the novel by Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park was apparently intended to be a franchise, boasting a star cast and a script by Dennis Potter. The film is notable for the variable attempts at Russian accents by Hurt and a supporting cast of mainly British thesps, who include Michael Elphick, Ian Bannen, Richard Griffiths, Alexei Sayle and Ian McDiarmid.

Lee Marvin and the late Brian Dennehy were on firmer ground with roles that allowed them to retain their own accents.

Moving forward to some more recent Russia-themed movies:

Enemy at the Gates (2001, Amazon Rental/Buy)

File this under ‘could have been better’. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Stalingrad epic is hampered by a boring love triangle subplot between Red Army comrades Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz as the objection of their affection. The movie is redeemed by some strong action sequences and the presence of the always reliable Ed Harris, who plays Law’s opposing number in the Wehrmacht.

The late Bob Hoskins pops up as Khrushchev, adding another to his list of historical portrayals, which included Churchill, J Edgar Hoover, Noriega, Mussolini, Pope John XIII and Stalin’s other henchman Beria.

Spinning Boris (2003, Amazon Rental/Buy)

This jolly Showtime satire purports to tell the true story of the US consultants hired to bolster Boris Yeltsin’s then tanking re-election attempts.

Not a must-see, but the trio of Jeff Goldblum, Anthony LaPaglia and Liev Schreiber (as the consultants) all enter the spirit of the piece.

Archangel (2005, Amazon Rental/Buy)

In a kind of dry run for Bond, Daniel Craig plays an English Professor of Soviet history investigating Stalin-related shenanigans in present day Russia.

Based on the Robert Harris novel, this BBC TV movie was filmed on location in Arkhangelsk, which is probably the most interesting aspect of this run-of-the-mill thriller.

Transsiberian (2008, Amazon Rental/Buy)

‘Strangers on a Train’ time in this overlooked thriller, as US couple Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer board the Beijing to Moscow sleeper to find themselves inadvertently involved with drug smugglers and corrupt coppers.

Ben Kingsley gets the chance to essay a Russian accent, which appears to be inspired in part by the character Boris Badenov from the US cartoon show The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky.

The Last Station (2009, Amazon Rental/Buy)

A chance of pace in this elegiac biopic about the final year of Leo Tolstoy’s life (1910), just seven short years before the Russian Revolution.

Followers and family squabble over the author’s financial and literary legacy as the Count flees the bickering only to die at Astapovo railway station.

Christopher Plummer excels as Tolstoy, as does Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife

The Way Back (2010, Amazon Prime)

A gruelling throwback to the likes of Papillon (1973), The Way Back was inspired by the true-life escape of a ragtag band political prisoners, thieves, undesirables, and POWs from a Siberian Gulag during WWII.

Ed Harris stars again, this time as an American engineer caught up in one of Stalin’s purges. The cast also includes Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Gustaf Skarsgård and Mark Strong. It's a gripping watch.

The Darkest Hour (2011, Amazon Prime)

No, not the Churchill biopic from 2017, but an alien invasion flick from a few years earlier, with US tech entrepreneurs Max Minghella and Emile Hirsch trapped in Moscow as the extra-terrestrials arrive.

By no means, a classic, but The Darkest Hour does at least compensate the viewer in having aliens who don’t conform to the usual stereotypes.

Anna Karenina (2012, Amazon Prime and Netflix)

Back to Tolstoy, with the other Darkest Hour director Joe Wright delivering a sumptuous adaptation of the Tolstoy weepie with Keira Knightley as Anna, all shot on a single soundstage.

Some criticised the picture what was felt to be an obsession with set and costume design, but to my mind, it’s a superior addition to the many versions of the novel. Aside from Knightley, the all-star cast numbers Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013, Amazon Rental/Buy)

The most recent and definitely the weakest of the Die Hard franchise, Willis decamps to Moscow (and later Chernobyl) in order to save his CIA officer son (Jai Courtney) from a trumped-up murder charge. Budapest (quite obviously at times) stands in for Moscow.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014, Amazon Rental/Buy)

Ken Branagh directed and gave himself the role of lousy-accented baddie in this largely forgotten movie that was released during the interregnum between Ben Affleck’s flop Sum of All Fears (2002) and the current Amazon Prime series with John Krasinski.

Chris ‘Captain Kirk’ Pine stars as Ryan, with Keira Knightley (again) as his fiancée Cathy.  Passes the time, but, as the phrase goes, ‘nothing to see here’. Well nothing we haven’t seen before, anyway.

Child 44 (2015, Amazon Prime)

A strong cast of Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Jason Clarke and Vincent Cassel couldn't save this Stalin-era thriller, which was a box office bomb.

Child 44 is one of the prime examples of a movie blighted by a polyglot cast’s attempts at Russian accents, which proves more than a little distracting. Mumbling star Tom Hardy isn’t the easiest actor to understand at the best of times, but with the addition of his leaden Slavic intonation subtitles are necessary.

The Death of Stalin (2017, Amazon Rental/Buy)

Armando Iannucci’s black comedy received some rave reviews but some of the farcical aspects don’t really work for me, as the all-star cast tend to give into panto-like mugging.

Also, there’s not enough of Stalin himself, who’s extremely well played by veteran stage actor Adrian McLoughlin, outshining the overheated antics of Jeffery Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs.

If you really want to watch a great black comedy about Stalin, try to find a copy of Jack Gold’s Red Monarch (1983), where the great Colin Blakely stars as Stalin, with David Suchet as pervy henchman Beria and David Threfall as the dictator’s alcoholic son Vasily.